This is an excerpt from Irving’s unpublished manuscript entitled “Consenting Addicts Life in Synanon” With permission from Kim Elinski
M A R G O M A C A R T N E Y (entered 1963, left 1981)
When I first met Margo she was married to a big shot. She was also pretty, kind, intelligent, creative, had lots of friends, and was respected by top brass and newcomer alike. Her character determined her position in the community more than her job. Her only fault was that she would snore lightly when she fell asleep at the movies.
She stayed in Synanon when her first husband split. At the time my marriage ended, she and I were working together, and we were friends. We dated briefly and then, in 1976, had a Synanon marriage. The State of California was not implicated. Our relationship ended two years later, when we changed partners, as everyone in Synanon was required to do as a demonstration that loyalty to Synanon came before loyalty to family. I would have asked Margo to go with me a few months later when I left Synanon, but I thought, as with her first husband, she would not leave to be with a mate, and I hate rejection. I was surprised when I learned that she left three years later. I thought she was a lifer. So her leaving made me think that Synanon must be treating good people especially badly.
ig: How did you get to Synanon?
mm: I had taken an overdose of pills. I can’t remember if it was intentional. I was pretty depressed and didn’t really care whether I lived or died. My roommate found me and called Dede Harvey, who was then a Presbyterian youth minister in Santa Monica. He talked to me about Synanon. He actually talked her into going to Synanon first. Of course I had blamed my roommate for all my bad behavior: if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be using drugs. When she left, I got all the drugs. Two or three months later when I couldn’t stop using, I realized that drugs were my problem, nobody else’s. I didn’t know any place to go for help other than Synanon. I remember walking into the club in Santa Monica and hearing the jazz group, the Sounds of Synanon, practicing. I thought this place will be alright because I loved jazz. I knew Synanon couldn’t be too bad if it pro- duced music. (laughs) That was April 3, 1963. It was my brother’s birthday. That’s how I remember the date. I was 26. I’d spent the years since high school exploring the beat generation of San Francisco, and the fringes of the jazz world of North Beach and Venice. I’d lived in the Village, and I had spent a winter season working and skiing in Aspen. Almost all of it included drugs: amphetamines, alcohol, pot, some mescaline and other things along the way. Then the heroin kind of got a grip on me.
ig: Had you ever gone anywhere before Synanon for help?
mm: No. And I was raised in a middle class family with a strong work ethic. They were very controlling when I was growing up. Decisions were made for me without the benefit of my input. I was so glad to get out of the house. When I left home, I just kept moving. I didn’t apply much of what I learned growing up until much later after I had almost killed myself.
ig: I remember your telling me when we were together that your family decided your brother would go to college because he was a guy and you wouldn’t because you were a girl.
mm: That’s what my parents decided, and that was very distressing to me because I was good in school when I wanted to be. I loved to write and wanted to be a journalist. I was the editor of the school newspaper at Alhambra High. Nobody said, You’re both really smart. Let’s figure out a way you can both go to college on scholarships. Maybe you’ll have to help a little bit. It was just expected that I would get married, have children and be a housewife. That never appealed to me.
ig: Then when you got out of Synanon you went back to college?
mm: When I got out of Synanon I got my undergraduate degree at Sierra Nevada College. They had a little branch in Reno. Then I went to law school in Reno and passed the bar in Nevada, California and Arizona in that order.
ig: How do you feel your Synanon experience prepared you for doing that?
mm: I don’t know that it actually did. One of the things that was very frustrating to me about Synanon was that you could never finish anything. There was never room for pursuing any particular thing in much detail. I think a lot of my persistence in getting through school was a reaction to that. Look at me I can finish whatever I want to finish. I can go to school and get my degree. I can go to law school. Nobody can tell me I have to stop or move me to another city so that I can’t finish. The strong feeling I had of being in control of my own life was important to me. The only thing that people were allowed to do consistently was sell because it was in the service of Synanon. If it had been my Synanon to direct, I would have let people get degrees and pursue things, because you feel really good about yourself when you are able to achieve something. If I get cynical about Synanon I say, Well, Chuck didn’t want anybody to feel really good about themselves because then they’d realize that they didn’t need Synanon. While I was in Synanon I felt like I never quite cut the mustard. Never quite good enough.
Since my job in Synanon was not tied with my housing and my actual day to day living, I could experiment. It was kind of skipping along the top, but I learned a lot of different things: to cook, to talk in front of people at speaking engagements, to do sing-alongs as part of a singing group. I got involved with the Balboa Theater in San Diego, with Minerva Marquis, when we were down there. I learned how to be a disc jockey; how to drive a truck; how to repair, tune and ride a motorcycle. There were just so many people who could teach you so many different things. You could learn things without going to a class. And that’s where I learned to do legal research, which eventually led me to becoming a lawyer. I thought legal research was fun. I found out I was better at it than some of the people who had Ph.Ds., which was a stunning discovery to me. I had a gift for reading cases and finding the issues.
There was an incredible variety of life available to everybody who was in Synanon: people, jobs, family, friends, kids. I worked with the kids. I didn’t have children of my own. Someone encouraged me to work in the school. I worked with the kids who were seven to nine years old. Those kids will have a special place in my heart always. They are all grown up now. Also, many of my friendships survive until today. I’ve been gone longer than I was there.
ig: Do you have any thoughts about the living as publicly as we did in Synanon?
mm: I think it produced a stronger and more cohesive society because people were more trusting. They knew what other people were doing, so they didn’t feel as protective and defensive. The sexual talk was a little beyond what we needed to share with other people, frankly, because people made fun of other people. Mostly I think we didn’t have as many secrets as people in the larger society, although I always thought that everybody had some (laughs) in spite of the claim that there are no secrets in Synanon. But we told enough of our secrets to generate a more open society, which in turn generated more trust and lowered the amount of stress that existed in the society that we had. I think that was pretty healthy.
ig: We found other ways of increasing the stress.
mm: What do you mean?
ig: One thing I’ve come to really appreciate after leaving Synanon is that if I fucked-up at work one day, my wife wasn’t pissed off at me, my kids weren’t pissed off at me, my friends didn’t think I was a pariah. But in Synanon when you screwed up—if you caught the wrath of the powers that be—all of your relationships and friendships got shaky just at the time that you needed them most. I always thought that was pretty stressful.
mm: It was. I can’t knock Synanon. It gave me a place to live during a period when I needed help. I started drinking when I was very young. And I think I stopped developing when I started drinking. I didn’t progress past about fifteen until I got into Synanon and stopped using chemicals. I don’t think you develop when you are using chemicals. As a public defender I see that with my clients today. They keep using drugs. They can’t stay clean. They can’t stay sober. They’re the same idiotic teenager they were when they started using, but in an old body. Synanon provided a place to learn about and experiment with yourself if you wanted to do it. There are a lot of people who went to Synanon who never did any little personal experiments, never learned much about themselves and then skipped out. They aren’t any different than when they got there. But some of us really did learn some things and progress intellectually, spiritually, ethically, and socially from the people who walked in Synanon’s door. I’ll always be grateful that Synanon was there. I think it got very distorted at the end. But I’m glad I was there early in its history.
ig: How do you see the Game now, and how did you see it when you were in Synanon? mm: I don’t see it as all the same throughout the years I was there. I think that it initially was what we said it was, which was a place for catharsis—a safe place where you could say pretty much anything and there were no repercussions. Repercussions started coming later on. If you said the wrong things about certain people there were consequences. By the late seventies everybody monitored what came out of their mouths. I did until short- ly before I left, at which point I decided to say whatever the hell I want to say. I found out later that people were taking bets on when I would leave. There was a pool going. Everybody knew that I was going to leave, because I had thrown caution to the wind in terms of saying what was on my mind. And what was on my mind was so averse to every- thing that Chuck and Synanon stood for at that time. I knew that I didn’t have a place there. The more I said the smaller a place I had, until it was all gone, and I left.
ig: How did that happen? Did the people in power start to shun you?
mm: Actually I had another conflict with Synanon. Before I left I was single and was perfectly happy staying single. I was told you can’t stay here and be single anymore. So I said so long, I’m leaving. Nobody’s ever going to make me go to bed with anybody else again, ever. I felt that I had been passed around like an old book or something. I didn’t like the feeling.
ig: You were married twice in Synanon legally? And then we got together and that was voluntary.
mm: Yeah. That was fine, and then we couldn’t be together any more. Then I forget whom I was with.
mm: I was with Pete, who was a sweet guy. I saw Pete a few years ago at a reunion and I was so pleased to see him, but it’s a very different thing to like someone and then have someone in authority tell you you have to be his mate. Maybe I was too old for that. I didn’t come from the kind of background where you had your mate chosen for you. At one point somebody tried to fix me up with Dan Sorkin because I was appropriate. I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. And it didn’t have anything to do with Dan. It just had to do with how I felt about myself. That was probably the thing that threw me over, that actually spun me out of the place or that had to do with the timing of when I left. But I knew I was going to leave. I had become really upset about money. About a month before I left, I got really upset in a Game and I said I’m going to leave. I don’t want to live here anymore. Sharon Green stopped me and said you’re too upset. Don’t leave now. Get yourself together. You can leave, but don’t leave when you are really upset, which was probably good advice. So I said well that makes sense. I didn’t have to leave. I’ll just hang in there and see what happens.
ig: How were you upset about money?
mm: Oh, just some people had a lot and some people had none.
ig: How did that work? How did some people get a lot?
mm: You know, I wish I could tell you. It didn’t have to do with what you did for a job in Synanon.
ig: Was there a lottery or something? Salaries?
mm: Some people had salaries and other people didn’t. And some people had credit cards, and other people didn’t. I just felt like I’d been there for so long and I deserved as much as anybody else. I don’t know what the criteria were. I haven’t given it any thought at all for years, decades, but I remember I was really upset about that. Money was part of it. Philosophy was another part of it. All the legal cases were another part of it. The snake in the mailbox was another part of it. I remember going to a birthday party right after I left. There were a few ex-Synanon people there. That’s when I learned that Synanon people really put a snake in the mailbox. I always thought that it was an accident. I said, I’ll be damned. We really did that. I was upset about a lot of things in Synanon. I hated the royalty aspect of Chuck’s family and the inner circle. They even used that expression—royalty. I thought it was stupid and self-serving.
ig: …and nepotistic in the extreme. Well, there was a lot of philosophy spouted in the early days, one line of which was, Character is the only rank, and I think you truly believed
mm: If you look at some of the old articles on Synanon, they even predicted that unless there were some precautions taken, Synanon could turn into an organization that existed to serve itself instead of serving the people who came for help. And that’s what happened. I was terribly disillusioned by the time I left. Shortly after I left I went to see the movie “Reds.” I left the movie, and I started crying; and I couldn’t stop crying. I asked myself what is going on here? And then I realized that my identification with the disillusionment portrayed in the movie was so strong. I think that I always had the illusion that Synanon was part mine and part all of ours. As I look back I think the disillusionment began with that Game in the Stew where Richie Gross was kicked out of Synanon.
ig: I don’t know about that.
mm: He spoke up. He said something like this is a bunch of shit. You know, he was just being honest. Through the public address system somebody phoned into the Stew where Richie was talking and told him that he had to leave. They said Synanon isn’t yours. You are not an owner. It belongs to Chuck and the other Dederichs and Dorothy and whoever else was in the inner circle at the time. And I said, Whoops. Synanon is not mine. I’m not an owner here. I never really talked about that. But when I saw that movie “Reds,” it got in under my skin. I really was disillusioned about what happened. And that was in the mid-seventies.
ig: So when family relations provided greater rank than character, I think you were, no pun intended, rankled.
mm: Oh yeah. I was rankled. Synanon was no longer what I had bought into, which was a society focused on each person developing her-or him-self to be the best that they could. We read Emerson. But toward the end if anybody spouted from “Self-Reliance” he got laughed at, because self-reliance was the last thing that anybody in management wanted. And more and more what I had bought into blinked out of existence, bit by bit. And then there was nothing left. Chuck was much more of a galloping megalomaniac than he had been in 1963. He’d always been kind of megalomaniacal. I never had that fixation on Chuck like he was some kind of God that other people seemed to have had. I think I always viewed him somewhat skeptically.
ig: But you stuck around another five years after that.
mm: Yeah. I don’t think I actually acknowledged how I felt. But I thought, I have no vested interest here. I have nothing. And if I don’t leave I’m going to die with nothing. I better get my butt out of here and try to earn a living so that I don’t die a bag lady, which I probably won’t do.